The Myth of Consensus: A column in five links


This column by Thomas Frank was the best thing I read today. Here’s the sentence I like:

There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism.

I take this column as a nice refutation of the central argument of Peter Russell’s new book, which we talk about here

If were to expand on this and apply it to the Canadian situation, it would go something like this:

I’d start by restating the central argument from this piece. 

Then I’d throw in some of this. and add a few lines from this.


The Myth of Consensus: A column in five links

  1. Centrism and it’s ugly, flaccid cousin, pragmatism. To stand for absolutely zero has become a badge of honour in politics.

    • RR, you said the P-word. The most blasphemous, expensive word of the 21st century. Please rinse your mouth out with soap, and start reproducing little economic units to pay the bill in the coming decades. That P-word is even more obscene than incorrectly apostrophising “its.”

      • There is a difference between being politically pragmatic and being a politician who seeks pragmatic solutions.

        The former discards ideology to stay in power. This leads to the centrism described by Frank and seems to be the current mantra of Mr. Harper. It splits the difference to nobody’s benefit except the politician involved.

        The latter follows facts, evidence, and logic to find what the best answer for a particular problem is, and then works to enact that regardless of the ideology. This leads not to centrism, but to responsible action which may be very far on any side of the political scale. It sometimes gets confused with centrism because it is neither right nor left in it’s application.

        We would do well to remember the difference.

        • Ah but it’s been argued that Harper has no choice given all the liberal obstacles in his way [ ie the judiciary, senate, press and peoples resistance to change – the only honest one in the bunch] Unfortunately for him this puts him nowhere. Nowhere with his base [ except true believers] and nowhere with every one else who generally despise phoney imitators. And all because he has no faith in the public to buy into conservative ideals. Compare this with T. Douglas who knew he would always be on the outside lookng in but refused to compromise his ideals anyway and continued to play a useful and effective role in parliament. But then he understood implicitly that it wasn’t about him. Something SH may well have understood once upon a time, long, long ago.

  2. Um, Andrew, maybe it would be better if you took all the little bits and actually wrote the column. Unless you’re really meaning to say, “everybody vote NDP next time,” in which case I got it.

  3. Mr. Frank has written some very good stuff over the years. But his piece assumes that BHO is a liberal , whatever that means these days. I don’t think we know that yet.

    But while I was reading his piece, my eye caught the most inane bit of blather that I’ve seen since my distant sophomore year :-

    This is what the WSJ offers these days ? Or is it a Murdochian blast from the past ?

    • Yes the WSJ does print stuff like that. Good for you that was in the site’s free pages. Doubt you could afford the pay stuff.

    • I thought Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were brilliant works when I was 18, but then I grew up and entered the working world and realized what fantasy they are.

  4. I’m confused. Why is pragmatism bad, as opposed to ideology? While not perfect, it seems pragmatism gives us better government than ideology (contrast Chretien to Harris, say. Hell, even Clinton to Bush 2).

    • Did you read Frank’s article?

    • Pragmatism is morally neutral. It’s just the usual wingnut sophistry that has, in very recent times, argued that pragmatism is always ideological. I’ve no doubt that with “centrists” pragmatism is ideological, but then with them, I don’t think we’re talking about genuine pragmatism, but simply political expediency, laziness, incuriousness or profound indifference hidden beneath a veneer of concern.

      I don’t think pragmatism has much meaning without reference to a specific context…what issue is one going to be pragmatic about?

  5. This post started off nicely, but got lost in a link farm of other articles that no one is going to read.

    The problem with “centrism,” as stated in Tom Frank’s piece, is that its purpose is to close off debate in a rush to present a solution (which is usually just action that pretends to be a solution), which inevitably means that a particular issue is not analysed thoroughly (in order to get accurate science about it) after which values can be introduced in order to establish what political options are available.

    A certain class of people prefer this simply because they have no real stake in the issue one way or the other. For example, the reason Americans never get health care reform (and never will) is that congressional Democrats, for the most, have never had to worry about paying medical bills.

    I don’t know how this really relates to the Coalition. I suspect Iggy is a “centrist” of the worst kind, but I don’t think that’s true of Liberals generally, and of the NDP or the Bloc at all.

    • I read them [ dorck alert]
      I wonder how long it’ll be before we start to hear the cries of eurekaI Definative evidence of the moral bankruptcy of Liberals?

      • It takes a real dork to misspell “dork.” [Congratulations on reading all the links however.]

        Or, in this case, perhaps it’s merely a typographical error? If so, I beg your pardon for pointing it out.

        • Yeah, iwas too lazy to correct it. Wondered if the dork alert would work?

          • Sure.

            “eurekaI.” And, “Definative,” also make your point nicely.

          • Stede Bonnet
            Actually definitely wasn’t on alert. But since you apologized i’ll apologize too.

  6. Good piece AP.
    I gather Andrew doesn’t like minoroty govt? How does he feel about PR? It appears to me that minority govts are a basterdization of the two, or more fairly FPTP just doesn’t work with 5 parties. I too had high hopes for a different kind of governance under minority.
    AP does a pretty effective job of making the case for politics as street warfare rather than the nice and uncompetitive ideal that some of us fondly envisioned with minority status.However, I don’t believe this lets SH off the hook. Three times we have sent him [ or he has failed, you pick] to Ottawa with a reminder to play nice. He promptly gave us the figurative finger and set out to gain the majority he imagines is rightly his, no matter what we say. This boy likes rules, he just doesn’t like them when the apply to him.[ eg, the coup] I don’t believe we should simply accept this as AP would probably respond as being a feature and not a bug. This may be how politicians are hardwired but it isn’t the way we are. Would minority work better under a different kind of leader?
    I like AP’s reasoning as far as majority goes, but didn’t Canadians say enough is enough, with the demise of liberal majorities and seem to be in no particular hurry to supplant one NGP with yet another.
    lastly i would be more than a little curious to know P.Russels view of the Frank piece?

    • Ps In my opinion AP is correct on the matter of unite the left. It’s no coincidence that SH and cons generally posit that a clear distinction would be good for the country. This could only work to his benefit. The kind of folks who could swing lib or con will find a new home with the CPoC, this would pretty well guarantee majorities far into the future for SH and the cons, how convenient.
      What would happen though if someone were able to stir the masses who no longer vote into life. a la Obama, what then?

  7. As an admirer of centrism, pragmatism, collaboration, consensus and any other descriptor being criticized here, I don’t see why the pursuit of ideology or unwillingness to bend are better. I understand the gains of competing tensions, that a battle between right and left results in both viewpoints being argued. But this should be part of the governing process, a la Russell, to achieve a centrist result. Because one-sided solutions never work all of the time. Sometimes right, sometimes left, sometimes a bit of both generally provide the most productive and effective results. Majorities of either stripe that destroy each other’s past work and replace it with their own only serve to lurch us back and forth and not often forward (and oftentimes backward – read Saul’s “A Fair Country.”). I see this as more unproductive than a slow, deliberative, incremental approach that tends to longer lasting, consensus-driven solutions. I’ve always maintained that when a politician starts talking about the need to be decisive and swift, then it’s a recipe for disaster (e.g. Bush Jr). I share the concerns about the radical and accelerated nature in which the bailouts are being developed, but at least the fact that Obama is drawing from all sides gives me some hope that some balance, and therefore a longer lasting and more effective solution, will be arrived at. I think Obama has some very strong convictions about how he wants his country to be governed and will argue in their favour, but he’ s smart enough to know that leading a collaborative enterprise is far better than marching down a resolute path.

    • If he leads a collaborative effort it will at the very least make it easier to figure out who’s to blame if it all goes wrong – everybody. Oh no! I think i triggered the cynic alarm!

    • In the abstract, it all sounds good…cautious, moderate, deliberative, etc. But concretely, “centrism” (which has little to do with pragmatism, collaboration and consensus) is almost entirely meaningless. It presupposes that the “just right” position for every single issue is found on scale between two extremes, when in reality, sometimes there is only one correct solution and sometimes there are thousands.

      • I think of centrism as starting from the centre and moving left or right as is pragmatic, not as placing the solution for everything at the centre. This would be the same as assuming conservatives or socialists generally find solutions on their respective sides of centre and not necessarily at the poles. Centrism overlaps both which I find far more appealing.

        • What you think centrism means and what “centrism” really is are two different things.

          • So what is it? I’m really intrigued because, as a self-professed centrist, any criticism or alternative view of it helps me understand and refine my own understanding.

  8. There may be something brilliant in Andrew’s connect the dot exercise and he was just too LAZY to bring it forward. (Caps for effect from earlier exchange) However, it strikes me that the linkage between Frank’s attack on Clinton’s policy, Obama’s strategy and the current Canadian political situation seems entirely specious… if anyone sees a profound linkage perhaps they could fill in the gaps between Andrew’s dots.

  9. Well Done! I am especially impressed with : Running a country is nothing like going to graduate school, it’s more like a form of organised crime. In many ways, the state is just one big protection racket, offering security and policing and a few social benefits in exchange for a form of tribute, which we call “taxes.”

    • A key difference.. you’re allowed to leave if you want to.
      Don’t let the door hit yer rear on the way out.

    • Wow, a protection racket that runs a deficit….

      • that’s funny.

        • Y’know, a little more humour around here wouldn’t go amiss. Can’t expect Feschuk to carry the whole load.

      • See, John, I’ve been telling y’all that government’s specialty is in screwing things up…

        • Not at all. Merely copying a very old, and very successful model.

          • And failing at it.

        • It IS actually possible to have more than one idee fixe in your life. At your age, I suggest now might be the time to start looking for another.

          And perhaps recognising that not everything is necessarily to be taken seriously, might be a good place to start.

  10. MYL
    But you must admit with considerably less bodies clogging up our waterways.

    • Madeyoulook’s an Anglo-Quebecker right winger. He sees failure everywhere.

      God, they’re insufferable.